I love me some exploration-based 2D platform action. I love games with an old school difficulty curve. I love amusing references to Yorkshire and Iâ€™ve always enjoyed the journalistic work of Ben â€˜Yahtzeeâ€™ Croshaw. In theory his new freeware game Poacher ought to be right up my street since its an expansive 2D adventure game with puzzle elements in which the main character is good natured, if dour, Yorkshireman. Also free games are awesome and people who make free games should be encouraged to keep doing so because the world needs art that doesnâ€™t have profit as a primary motivation.
In Poacher you take on the role of Derek Badger, the shotgun-toting poacher of the title, whose chance encounter with a gamekeeper sets him off on a subterranean adventure people with strange mystics, spirit creatures, carnivorous rabbits and strange animated kidneys. Thereâ€™s a great deal of humour running through the game, Badgerâ€™s relationship with his spirit guide is particularly nicely drawn and the whole thing feels oddly like an extended Monty Python sketch with no clear end in sight. As you explore the different parts of the subterranean world, Badger will develop new skills such as a higher jump, a wall jump, grenades and others in a fashion more than a little reminiscent of the Metroid games (some of my favorite games of all time). I really want to like Poacher, I really do. I just canâ€™t.
The problem with Poacher is that it combines backtracking (which is fine) with a brutal difficulty level (which is also fine) and a severe absence of save points (much less fine). Itâ€™s just exhausting to play. On their own, the puzzle and exploration elements work very nicely but they have been combined with some of the most unforgiving platform gaming Iâ€™ve ever played. Spikes litter the play areas like moronic comments litter YouTube, the monsters respawn every time you leave an area and are often placed to be of maximum annoyance when completing complex sequences of jumps. I spent most of my playing time cursing through my teeth on my last bit of health whilst uncaring death rained down upon me from all sides praying for save point that, like the second coming, seemed more like a metaphor for the role of justice in the human condition than an actual thing I might be able to get to.
The thing that frustrates me so much about Poacher is that Iâ€™m always on the verge of liking it at the same time as being much more nearly on the verge of breaking my fingers with a claw hammer so I can ignore the impulse to keep playing it. The graphics, while basic, have a lot of character, the death animations in particular are pleasantly satisfying and the different environments are reasonably distinct provided you donâ€™t mind the fact that theyâ€™re all absolutely covered in spikes. The sound is less good but has the decency to sit unobtrusively in the background rather than get all up in your face about it.
I eventually got to about 32% of the way through Poacher before giving up in despair (and Iâ€™m someone who plays original Castlevania games for fun). Itâ€™s possible that someone with either much better control of their digits, or a much higher tolerance for pain or, better still, some kind of psychic powers that warn them about falling bullets from monsters on the screens above them could do well with this game but for me the bad outweighs the good. Its broken enough for me not to want to play it any more. Itâ€™s already savagely and unforgivingly hard at 32% complete, I shudder to think what the rest of the game is like. You might as well find out for yourself though, after all it is available for the princely sum of nothing at all. Alternatively Cave Story is also free, also put together by a single person, and is unfathomably awesome at doing the whole cave exploration thing. For now though it seems like weâ€™re going to have to wait for the definitive game about rural types from Yorkshire. Which is a shame.